Turtle Tattoos: History, Meanings & Designs

Turtle Tattoos: History, Meanings & Designs

The turtle is usually associated with either mother earth or ancient wisdom, two things that are by no means something that you wouldn’t want to be associated with. The cultural meaning of turtle is as ancient and lengthy as the turtle itself. 

Since there are so many different types of turtles, there are many associations, both in terms of historical meaning and spiritual symbology. Turtles are ancient—some of the world’s oldest creatures and are often associated with ancient wisdom, growth, and the eternal. 

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for better or for worse, thrust this hard-shelled reptile back into the forefront of public consciousness, where they have remained, from one degree to another, ever since. Turtles are often associated with luck, so they may be lucky to be in the limelight again. 


What is the History of Turtle Tattoos?

Historically, turtle tattoos are always more dominant around cultures that live near large bodies of water, for obvious reasons. Hawaii has a rich and varied history with turtles both as tattoos and in terms of their historical significance. 

Since the days of Aesop’s Fables, the turtle has been a representative of all that is wise and understanding. As with some of the other popular animal tattoos, turtles enjoy a large degree of spiritual history amongst a variety of cultures, including Native Americans, Japanese, Hawaiians, Africans, Greeks, and Jamaicans. 

Both the Native Americans and the Japanese histories are rife with turtles, always told from the perspective that the turtle was the primary character, the focal point through which everything thing else was a part. 

In Polynesian culture, the turtle is known as the Honu and has a pretty illustrious history. While turtles represent wisdom and longevity elsewhere, Polynesian culture probably has a better grasp on the turtle and its varied history better than anyone (they are an island state after all).  

For them, the turtle represents health, well-being, long life, peace, a state of rest, and the foundations of a giant philosophical structure. 


What Do Turtle Tattoos Symbolize?

We could provide you with a list, but it would probably take pages and pages worth of space, especially if we covered every culture that this reptile in a shell has touched. There are many symbols that are related to the turtle, so we will touch on the ones that are seemingly the most universal. 


  • Stability and a strong foundation
  • Infinite patience
  • Longevity
  • Wisdom and intelligence
  • Peace and prosperity
  • Innocence, especially in a child
  • Endurance (The Rabbit and the Tortoise)
  • Sacred


It’s strange associating turtle with many of these things and most of it is probably derived simply from the turtle’s appearance and physical attributes more than anything else. The truth is, turtles aren’t doting parents, often laying their eggs and abandoning their offspring.

If that were all there was to it, however, turtles probably wouldn’t have achieved their famous symbology at all. Turtles are undeniably cute, fiercely defensive, and indomitable survivors, and that tenacity to snatch life from the jaws of death is where they have risen from the ash heap of history’s many, varied and extinct species. 


What Do Turtle Tattoos Mean?

Turtle tattoos invariably mean something different to whomever they are emblazoned on.

A turtle on someone’s arm could mean a little bit of everything that we have talked about thus far. However, it could also be a remembrance — a dead friend or loved one who loved turtles, forever enshrined on their living friend’s back or arms.

Many choose turtle tattoos as a symbol of long life, whether they wish it for themselves or for others. They can also mean peace to those who have them forever enshrined on their bodies — peace because that is how turtles are represented in so many cultures.

At the end of the day, if you want to know the meaning of a turtle that is tattooed on someone’s body, then you would have to ask that person since all tattoos are personal and signify something within that person’s philosophy, perspective, or personality. 


Characteristics and Styles of Turtle Tattoos

Like any object that you’ll either draw for a tattoo artist to replicate or find in the artist’s book at the tattoo parlor, there are many styles and variations for any number of objects, symbols, animals, people, etc. 

Tribal turtles are some of the more popular turtle variations. They fall in line with Polynesian culture and share elements with Hawaii and Maori. Take a look at The Rock’s tattoos if you want to get an idea of what we are talking about, at least in terms of design, if not meaning.

Celtic Tattoos are far more ancient-looking but less varied, as Celtic symbols usually go. For instance, Celtic art forms are beautiful but similar across the board. So, a Celtic depiction of a pot will highly resemble the Celtic representation of a tree, with its looping whorls and art forms that resemble highly structured, snaking bars. 

Peace turtles are another popular style since turtles are often associated with peace. Anyone who has ever been on the biting end of a snapping turtle might disagree but it is what it is. Peace turtles have been popular since the 1960s and if you need to know why that began in the 60s, you’re not paying attention. 


Where Do Turtle Tattoos Usually Go?

Turtles can go anywhere on the body but you will find that most people have turtles tattooed on their upper arms. Is there a reason for that? Not really—it just seems to be the most predominant place for getting a turtle tattooed. 

Some people get cute with them and have tiny turtles tattooed on their feet, while others may get a large one on their ribcage. They can really go anywhere but the upper arms seem like the most routine place. 


In Conclusion

The turtle represents the font of wisdom and longevity, peace and tranquility, and often shares these traits far across cultural lines, even when those cultures are separated by leagues of ocean. 

Turtles will always have their place in these categories and thanks to the boost from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, will always have a place in popular culture as well.

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